Man in Black
by Shari L. Rosenblum
Define irony. A dull, flat, passionless film that claims as its subject all-consuming love and lust's unquenchable ardor; a celebration of temptation's victories named for an ode to easy fidelity. (Alanis Morissette, take note. Apologies to Garland Greene). Walk the Line is all of this and more, or rather less. The story of an original told in familiar, hackneyed episodes.
The problem starts with the writing. Though not skill-less, it is perfunctory at best. The screenplay by Gil Dennis and James Mangold follows the paint by numbers of the musical hagiography from sibling crisis to parental obsession, sex to love to hardly seen children, marriage to divorce and so on and so forth, misery to drugs, crisis to ostensible rehab to reconciliation, all the way to death and beatification. In fact, this year's story of Johnny Cash plays pretty much like last year's story of Ray Charles, with just as clunky a script, and a far less adaptive star. And the music, except for some oddly intrusive mock cameos, gets rather short shrift. If someone had lulled me out of my deadened complacency, it probably would have annoyed me even more.
The problem, alas, continues through to the direction. I'm rather convinced that Mangold, who previously gave us the unromantic comedy Kate and Leopold, has never actually seen people in love. Or at least not enough to recreate it. He gives us are camera angles that do not make sense, long last looks and dramatic focus that distract from the story, and general awkwardness. Under his conducting, the longing of of Johnny Cash for June Carter plays as a stalker creepfest, while hers for him never seems anything more than a convenient roll in the hay. (There's talk about husbands and children and god and the bible, but the film makes little use of the dramatic impact such things might have).
And then there's the acting. The characters are unlikable to a one (not just bad, but written that way). As Johnny Cash, Joaquin Phoenix seems neither like a man with a gift nor a man with a goal. He plays out rather like a lumbering halfwit with an urge and an evil leer. Nothing he does feels motivated. The biopic is the actor's opportunity to shine--to blend with his character, melt into the role. Phoenix misses by a mile. Rather than become Johnny Cash, he becomes a reminder that you really should look into Johnny Cash. In this utterly magicless interpretation, Cash is conceived as a sort of Mad-Eye Moody for the prison crowd, with a depressively manic side and a manically depressive one, both apparently the fault of his father, Voldemort. Okay, not really. Because at least Voldemort has feelings. Ray Cash (Robert Patrick) manages to be selfish with his love, vindictive and cantankerous without provocation, while Johnny just wants his daddy's love. Heaven help us. I kept wanting to see father and son go at it, kickin' and a gougin' in the mud and the blood and the beer. But no. There was nothing. It was nothing. Speaking of which, Johnny's mother (Shelby Lynne), who by the film's telling had no personality at all, but did have a book of hymnals to help us segue to musical genius.
Musical genius, the film makes clear, was not of interest to Johnny's first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) who appears to have been a mere passing acquaintance before turning quickly into a self-righteous hag -- whining about everything that makes her man happy (walk the friggin' line, indeed; I was scouting for her replacement before Johnny was). And June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) comes off as a superficial, manipulative, cheerleader slut in gingham. Or thereabouts. Witherspoon is less creepy than Phoenix, but a great deal more superficial. She is so unpersuasive as the lover of the man in black, that I found myself going back over all of her roles to see if she's ever been persuasively in love. I confess; I like Witherspoon in the lighter fare. But here she lacked the gravitas. I could not help but be a bit put off watching her wrestle the "Ring of Fire" with all the dramatic heft of Jan Brady struggling with jealousy over Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.
It was brave and ambitious for both Phoenix and Witherspoon to attempt the vocals, and they aquit themselves well enough, but only so much as to make you eager to hear the original recordings. Or see the original stars on old video. Which is what I went to do immediately upon exiting the theater. Anything to get the taste of the film out of my mouth.
©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum